Sunday 20 October 2019

Reviews: What it was by George Pelecanos, Torn by Casey Hill and Another Time, Another Life by Leif GW Persson

ORION, €13.60
George Pelecanos is at his best in story of a killer determined to be remembered, writes Declan Burke

George Pelecanos was researching a novel on the Watergate scandal when the story of Raymond 'Cadillac' Smith caught his eye.

A violent young man who cut a swathe through Washington DC in 1972, Smith is reborn in Pelecanos's 18th novel, What It Was, as Red Fury Jones, a man who "aimed to leave behind a name that would be remembered. That would be something. Maybe the only thing. The one way you could win".

What It Was is a kind of 'origins' novel for one of Pelecanos's series characters, the private eye Derek Strange, who first appeared in Right as Rain (2001). A young black man sporting a Richard Roundtree moustache and outrageous bell-bottom flares, Strange has an insider's dope on DC's urban ghettoes that the police, represented here by veteran cop Frank Vaughn, simply can't hope to match.

Commissioned to find a precious piece of jewellery, Strange quickly realises that Red Fury Jones has stolen it. So far, so good, but tracking down the fast-moving killer will prove a little more difficult, especially when Strange would need to be suicidal himself to attempt to retrieve the goods from a man who is on a kamikaze-style mission to live fast, die young and leave a legendary corpse.

Fans of Pelecanos -- who was an award-winning writer-producer on the seminal TV crime series The Wire, and is currently working on HBO's Treme -- will recognise some of the author's trademark riffs: the DC setting, the funky soundtrack, the pop culture references that embrace music, movies, clothes and cars. Despite the stripped-back prose and turbo-charged pace, however, What It Was is infused with an unusually sombre and almost elegiac tone (the story is told by an ageing Strange to another of Pelecanos's series characters, Nick Stefanos), particularly when Pelecanos is writing about the doomed Red Jones: "Jones had grown up in one of DC's infamous alley dwellings, way below the poverty line. No father in his life, ever, with hustlers in and out of the spot, taking the place one ... All of them hungry, all the time. Being poor in that extreme way, Jones felt that nothing after could cut too deep ... "

Despite being something of a bonus offering to fans, arriving little more than six months after 2011's The Cut and priced to reflect that fact, What It Was bears comparison with the finest work of George Pelecanos's distinguished career.

The Quantico-trained, Dublin-based Californian forensic investigator Reilly Steel returns in Casey Hill's sophomore novel Torn, in which a particularly perverse serial killer is dispatching his victims in a series of diabolical murders that have their roots in one of the great works of world literature.

It's not a particularly plausible plot, but despite the cutting-edge technology on display here -- at one point Reilly uses an iSPI (Investigative Scene Processing Integration) device to help her reconstruct crime scenes -- Casey Hill is in the business of creating old-fashioned mystery stories that have much more in common with the puzzle-solving games played by Golden Age doyennes Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, et al, than they have with the gritty realists of contemporary crime fiction.

Indeed, the reader is encouraged to have some fun acknowledging the tropes. "Are you really surprised that he didn't take you straight to his home territory so early in the game?" asks a character of Reilly in the latter stages. The authors -- the wife-and-husband writing team of Melissa and Kevin Hill -- even allow Reilly a tongue-in-cheek run-through of the serial killer genre's conventions as she comments aloud on the case in hand: "Meticulously planned murders," she observes, "no effort too great, lots of research on the victims needed, the method of dispatch excessive, grotesque even ... "

That said, and while accepting that Torn leans heavily towards the escapist end of the crime/mystery spectrum, an existential quality emerges as the story thunders towards its finale.

What's the point, Reilly & Co ask themselves. Isn't catching a killer once the murders are already committed an exercise in stable-door bolting? And who can guarantee the investigators, who put their lives on the line, that the judicial system will vindicate their efforts and not botch the prosecution?

Given the conservative nature of the crime/mystery novel, this is a quiet but impressively radical departure. There's little of the usual cant about justice and redemption on show here; in Torn, the punishment very aptly fits the crime. In the guise of ostensibly escapist mystery fiction, Casey Hill asks a valid but rarely asked question: do readers have the stomach for a truly gritty reality, in which some crimes, no matter how terrible, simply go unpunished?

Another Time, Another Life, by Leif GW Persson, takes a historical event as its jumping-off point, opening with the taking of the West German embassy in Stockholm in 1976 by a group of Baader-Meinhof terrorists. A siege ensues, lives are lost; the world turns, and files are consigned to dusty folders. A decade or more later, an apparently insignificant loner is discovered stabbed to death in his apartment. Who killed him? And, crucially, why?

"Nothing's the same here since they killed Palme," observes one of Persson's characters. The common consensus on Scandinavian crime is that it has developed as a reaction to the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, but Leif Persson seems to be suggesting that things have been somewhat less than perfect in Sweden for quite some time now. In part a police procedural story, and partly a spy tale, the novel expands beyond the borders of Sweden to take in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate fate of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

It's an unconventional crime novel in that it reads like a blend of history lecture and classic paranoid thriller, but it is also reminiscent of a Swedish version of James Ellroy's reconfigurations of official history, as fictional characters interact with historical figures. Its structure, cynicism and characterisations won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a bravura re-imagining of what the crime fiction novel can be.

Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His most recent novel is 'Absolute Zero Cool' (Liberties Press).

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